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Agency scrambles as Hawaii’s jobless claims top 194,000

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Unemployment claims in Hawaii rose to 194,936 on Monday from March 1, which is considered the beginning of the COVID-19 impact for the state.

Scott Murakami, Department of Labor and Industrial Relations director, said Tuesday the department has begun to see a tapering off in new claims; however, they are still well above historic levels.

Murakami said recent claims have fallen to a range of 7,000 to 8,000 from 10,000-plus per day two weeks ago and 15,000 to 16,000 per day prior to that. But the current claim volume is still significant given that before COVID-19 a high day for the department would have been about 200 claims.

“The volume of claims is just astronomical. It’s unbelievable to see, and we realize that these represent … real people. It’s really concerning to us. We want to make sure that we pay people the right amount and as quickly as possible,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to make that happen.”

On average, Murakami said, claims processing is taking 21 days, a number the department is working hard to reduce.

Gig workers — those who work as independent contractors or as on-call or temporary workers — are waiting even longer as the U.S. Department of Labor still hasn’t provided the states with guidance on those applications.

Longer waits are also true for applicants waiting to get CARES Act assistance, including an additional $600 a week for four months and a 13-week extension beyond Hawaii’s normal 26-week unemployment insurance period. Once DLIR gets a clear federal directive, Murakami said, the CARES Act benefits will be retroactive to Jan. 31.

In the meantime there are lots of frustrated applicants.

Bryant de Venecia, spokesman for Unite Here Local 5, said about 80% of the union’s 12,000 members have lost jobs and that most report difficulties with the unemployment insurance system.

“Some first-time applicants are still waiting anywhere from a few days to a whole week to get confirmation numbers,” de Venecia said. “The big question is, When are they going to receive the benefits? It’s hard for a lot of folks. They are already worried about how they are going to pay for rent and groceries. Those working reduced hours are worried about how to pay for child care.”

De Venecia said the system requirements must be made clearer. There also needs to be a better way for workers who are already in the system to reactivate claims, he said.

Applicants making new claims or trying to provide required updates have reported the website is overloaded and that they can’t get on or have been kicked off, and that they can’t get anyone on the phone and their emails are going unanswered.

Murakami recommends that initial applicants who are having difficulty getting into the system file a claim on DLIR’s web form If they don’t get an email in a day or two with a claims number, he advises following up with a call. The phone line for appointments is 833-901-2275.

People who are already in the system also are reporting problems. Applicants who have maxed out their 26 weeks but will qualify for the 13-week extension say they can’t apply online and that the earliest appointments for assistance aren’t until well into May.

Others report problems in continuity. Dave Moskowitz, who first had a claim for lost restaurant hours and then for full unemployment, said his check didn’t arrive this week.

“I’m in the system; it should have been automatic. If the problems continue, I’m really concerned on what’s going to happen. People are going to be in a very bad, dark, sad place,” Moskowitz said.

Murakami said DLIR hopes to get checks out faster by making improvements, including adding personnel and eliminating idiosyncrasies embedded in the system.

On Monday night Murakami said DLIR eliminated the requirement to wait five days for employers to verify a claim before processing starts.

“It doesn’t make sense. We know the person is laid off and the employer may no longer be in business, so why would we wait the five-day period?” Murakami said.

DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman said the department also has eliminated requirements for employers to certify partial unemployment claims and for applicants to post resumes and search for jobs. He said DLIR also has “made some other technical changes that boil down to making the system more efficient at making payments whilst still having the ability to detect fraud.”

Before COVID-19, Murakami said, DLIR had seven workers assigned to handle unemployment insurance. Kunstman said that as of Monday, DLIR reallocated 38 more staff members from other parts of the agency, bringing its total internal reallocation to 76. DLIR also is working with the state Department of Human Resources Development to bring on additional staff, he said.

Kunstman said DLIR also has expanded operations.

“Instead of one call center, we have one at the Sandbox in Kakaako, one on the first floor for password resets, and a new claims processing center on the third floor,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the frequency of the additional $600-a-week benefit that claimants get under the CARES act.
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